Axios AM Deep Dive

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January 21, 2023

🇨🇭 Good afternoon, and welcome to our Deep Dive from the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

  • Team Axios — Courtenay Brown, Dave Lawler, Ina Fried, Alison Snyder, editor-in-chief Sara Kehaulani Goo and publisher Nicholas Johnston — covered the heads of state, CEOs, activists and celebrities who attended.

Smart Brevity™ count: 1,395 words ... 5 mins.

1 big thing: New global shocks

Illustration of a globe with business hands pointing downward, surrounded by abstract shapes.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Global economists are warning that once-rare economic shocks may become more frequent, Axios Macro co-author Courtenay Brown writes.

  • That was the worrisome undercurrent of conversations among attendees at this week's meeting — where some of the world's richest and most powerful people returned in droves for the first full-fledged Davos since 2020.
  • Conference organizers dubbed this era the “turbulent twenties.”

Why it matters: As the world continues to grapple with fallout from the pandemic shock and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the global economy suddenly is facing massive new disruptions.

Here are some of the top risks discussed this week:

1. The cheap money that defined the last decade could remain permanently in the rearview.

  • Central banks plan to raise interest rates to steep levels — and hold them there for an unknown period — to contain still-high inflation, which has created a crushing cost-of-living crisis around the world.

2. How nations should approach the green energy transition — and whether some policies are a pathway to protectionism — is the subject of new, heated debates.

  • President Biden's Inflation Reduction Act — praised by many CEOs in Davos for its incentives to speed the U.S. energy transition — is prompting concern among European allies who fear it'll drain investment that would otherwise have gone to them.

3. Huge demographic shifts are among the reasons pandemic-era worker shortages are expected to be the new normal.

  • That's why some CEOs at Davos say (for now) they plan to hang on to workers — even as they expect to slash costs elsewhere to adjust to a slowing global economy. That sets up what could be vastly different labor market outcomes around the world.
  • One outlier is the battered tech sector. Microsoft this week announced it would lay off 10,000 employees — the same day CEO Satya Nadella took the stage in Davos.

4. Artificial intelligence is evolving much more quickly than many — including some in the Davos crowd — anticipated.

  • Conversations at cocktail parties and nightcaps were peppered with speculation about how AI will shake up our lives.

Reality check: Given all these risks, the mood among executives — inside the main conference hall and along the icy pathways — was more upbeat and optimistic than you might expect.

Read the full story.

2. What's in, what's out

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

In:

  • Europeans lamenting the Inflation Reduction Act
  • ChatGPT
  • Climate tech innovation
  • Sidewalk hot chocolate

Out:

  • COVID, what? There was little talk of the pandemic.
  • Bitcoin
  • Government climate policy
  • Changing shoes between schleps
  • Men’s neckties

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3. Davos frets over AI and jobs

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New artificial intelligence systems dominated the tech conversation in Davos, with a mix of excitement and worries over how they will reshape the future of work, Axios chief tech correspondent Ina Fried writes.

  • Why it matters: Past waves of automation have targeted entry-level jobs. But generative AI systems like ChatGPT and Dall-E 2 raise fears for knowledge workers, including those in the C-suite.

What they're saying: Ad-industry icon Sir Martin Sorrell said during a panel that — although a lot of attention is being paid to how generative tools will reshape creative work — he sees even greater disruption in the lucrative but labor-intensive tasks of buying and placing ads.

  • Mihir Shukla, CEO of Automation Anywhere, said his firm's AI software is already automating a host of tasks, such as processing mortgage applications.
  • Shukla said the technology has found its way into areas he never expected — such as helping overworked nurses in the U.K. monitor COVID patients' oxygen levels.

Reality check: Experts see AI taking over specific tasks rather than replacing entire jobs.

  • Stanford professor Erik Brynjolfsson said he and his colleagues broke out the tasks required in 950 occupations. AI could handle many of the functions, but not all: "We did not find a single one where machine learning ran the table and could do all of them."

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4. New urgency for Ukraine

Photo illustration of various Ukrainian people set against background shapes and colors similar to the Ukrainian flag

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Spencer Platt, Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For much of Davos, Ukraine was one crisis among many — discussed as much for its secondary effects on energy, food supplies and inflation as for the war itself, Axios World author Dave Lawler reports.

Flashback: The war in Ukraine dominated the previous forum, which was held just three months after Russia began its invasion. Even then, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Axios that he worried "Ukraine fatigue" would set in.

The big picture: Although Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska had a prime speaking spot and the war featured in several speeches and panel discussions, the Davos crowd seemed more captivated by recession fears, AI and the energy transition.

  • Chef José Andrés, whose nonprofit World Central Kitchen has been working in Ukraine, warned global leaders at the meeting about the risk of waning attention to the war, as has happened with other crises. Andrés specifically pointed to Haiti, which has long been ravaged by political turmoil, gang violence and hunger, and now a new cholera outbreak.
  •  "We still see [Ukraine] as an emergency," Andrés told Axios.

In a live interview from Kyiv, Zelensky called on his Western partners to deliver Ukraine "the vaccine against Russian tyranny" — more sophisticated weapons, particularly longer-range missiles.

Many of the biggest names in Davos piled into a breakfast that turned into an emphatic call for global attention, action and investment.

  • Speaking at the breakfast, former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated definitively that Vladimir Putin won't use nuclear weapons and lamented that some allies still feared "provoking" him.
  • Finance heavyweights, including Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, laid out plans for rebuilding.

Read the full story.

5. Hydrogen planes could reshape aviation

Photo illustration of an airplane flanked by hydrogen atoms against a background of geometric shapes.

Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Aviation accounts for about 3% of global carbon emissions. But its share will likely grow as more people climb aboard unless the fuel source changes, Dave writes.

Speaking to Axios in Davos, Val Miftakhov, CEO of ZeroAvia, predicted that will happen sooner than you think. His firm held its first successful test of a retrofitted 19-seat aircraft Thursday, making it the largest hydrogen-electric powered aircraft ever to take flight.

  • Miftakhov hopes to start delivering planes with up to 20 seats by 2025 and jets by 2029, and says major airlines have placed orders.
  • That timeline will require arduous regulatory approvals and new infrastructure at airports. "If we have all these beautiful engines with no fuel at the airports, nobody's gonna fly them," he told Axios.

The other side: In a separate interview in Davos, Saudi Aramco CTO Ahmad Al-Khowaiter told Axios the world's largest oil company expects demand for jet fuel or synthetic fuel far into the future.

  • But he believes battery power will be useful for short-range flights and hydrogen power for regional flights of up to 1,000 miles.

Go deeper.

6. 🏔️ 1 fun thing: summer vs. winter Davos

Left: Staff is walking outside the congress centre ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos on May 21, 2022

Left: People at the Davos forum in May 2022. Right: People at Davos this week. Photos: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP and Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Want to start a passionate discussion in Davos? Don't bring up supply chains, AI or crypto. Talk about the weather!

  • The gathering returned to January this year after the pandemic moved last year's event to May. The ice, wind and early sunsets had attendees wistfully remembering verdant alpine flower meadows and casual sidewalk strolls, Axios publisher Nicholas Johnston writes.

❄️ Watch out for the ice! Davos sidewalks aren't salted. The lack of shoveling discipline would get you fined in the U.S.

  • That has created what IBM vice chairman Gary Cohn calls "the anatomy of shoes." Wear snow boots and switch into street shoes at events? Wear boots all the time? Buy crampons to strap onto regular shoes? Throw caution to the wind and wear heels?

Most executives we hosted at Axios House events preferred summer Davos because of the pleasant weather and lighter packing loads (fewer shoes and no coats). 

⛷️ The winter partisans raved about the skiing and pointed out ... It's the Alps! It's supposed to be snowy and cold!

"Before this week, I was going to say summer Davos," said Qualcomm chief sustainability officer Angela Baker.

  • "But we just walked down from where we're staying — it's probably a 30-minute walk, and it was so beautiful. Like a little Christmas village."

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  • This Deep Dive was edited by Alison Snyder, Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath, Scott Rosenberg and Javier E. David. Thanks to Brad Bonhall for copy editing.